The first big blockbuster film of the year is upon us, and with apologies to my friends who take all this comic-book stuff very seriously, I’ll say it’s pretty darn good—for what it is. But it is what it is. By that I mean it’s a comic-book movie, period. Let’s face facts, comic books aren’t Faulkner in four-color process. OK sure, a couple of film adaptations of comics have transcended the form—for instance, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) and Bryan Singer’s X2 (2003)—but at the end of the day, they’re still fantasticated and completely preposterous.
Here we’re talking about a guy who dresses up in a flying metal suit to blast, bomb and bludgeon his way through a variety of terrorists, plus a traditional superbad guy in an even bigger flying metal suit. There’s precious little wiggle room for subtlety in a framework like that. And in the case of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, that’s not a bad thing. It’s kind of a relief to encounter one of these movies that doesn’t think it’s on par with Hamlet. And God knows, I’d had enough of that whiny little twerp Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) by the end of Spider-Man 2 (2004), and could’ve gladly dropped a full-size Steinway on both him and that font of prefab wisdom Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) long before the end of Spider-Man 3 (2007).
Iron Man‘s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) doesn’t puddle up like Bette Davis every 10 minutes, nor does he do the brooding Batman sulk like Garbo contemplating throwing herself under a train. Plus, the character and Downey are simply a lot more fun than that block of wood, Brandon Routh, who plays Superman in Superman Returns (2006)—not that Superman in any incarnation is exactly a firkin of simians.
The Iron Man character is born when Stark is kidnapped by an international mix of terrorists who want him to construct his munition company’s latest and greatest weapon. A combination of personal ire and a crise de conscience upon finding that the bad guys are using his weaponry against the good guys compels Stark to rethink his life as a hedonistic, hard-drinking womanizer, making a fortune off humankind’s incessant desire to blow each other up. In that regard, there is some mild sense of attempting to “deepen” the character. There’s also a bit of antiwar subtext (goes down much more smoothly when it’s buried in the story). But this is limited to the basic concept and a couple of brief scenes. Better yet, Stark never becomes glum and is never less than a smart-ass, which is refreshing.
Also refreshing is Stark’s tentative romance with the improbably named “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). It’s again not as goopy and downbeat as the relationships in the Spider-Man pictures or old Supes mooning over lost Lois Lane in Superman Returns. In fact, it’s unusually adult and smacks a good bit of the old screwball comedy, and some of the dialogue is sharp and funny.
The film isn’t perfect. First of all, nothing ever tops Stark’s original, truly creepy Iron Man outfit that he creates for himself while imprisoned by the terrorists. It reduces our hero to a kind of unstoppable, monstrous force of nature. His subsequent suit that he crafts when he gets back home may be a good bit more stylish, but let’s face it, it also looks awfully like a hood ornament on a 1930s car and completely loses the sense of menace. Worse, the bigger, badder “Iron Monger” togs affected by his nemesis, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), are similarly less menacing than Stark’s original suit. It doesn’t help that Bridges—even with the requisite comic-book villain alopecia-afflicted dome—just isn’t terrifically effective as a villain. And his specially modulated giant-monster voice is frankly less impressive than that of Frank Morgan’s coming over the loudspeakers in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
The film’s biggest problem, however, is one that afflicts most comic-book movies: It feels simultaneously too long and too rushed. There’s an awful lot of buildup here to get to a fairly tepid “big ending.” It’s not as pronounced as the “that was it?” climaxes of Daredevil (2003), Superman Returns or Spider-Man 3, but it’s simply not enough payoff for all the effort. This, I think, is partly the unfortunate by-product of the increased slickness in special effects. It’s become harder and harder to impress us. When Richard Donner’s Superman came out in 1978, the whole thrust of the ad campaign was “You’ll believe a man can fly!” That was a somewhat hopeful assessment, but there was an excitement to it. Now, we take it for granted.
So yeah, Iron Man has its flaws, but they’re not enough to keep the film from being a good time at the movies. At a time when you can run down the list of every title in a multiplex and find little but an array of various levels of cinematic suckage, that’s a pretty heady accomplishment. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content.